I learned a lot in business school, but it wasn't until after I graduated that I fully realized how much I still didn't know. I don't blame Stanford--they did the best they could with me--but one of the reasons I find my current work with MBA students so gratifying is that I'm helping them explore topics that will allow them be better prepared after graduation than I was.
I recently had a chance to talk with Corey Ford, a former GSB student and lecturer and Fellow at Stanford's Institute of Design, aka the "d.school," [and currently Managing Partner of Matter.] We talked extensively about what he'd learned in business school, but I also asked him about what he didn't learn.
His answers resonated with me--I had the same gaps in my knowledge 10 years ago. And despite the substantial innovations in the GSB's new curriculum, particularly its emphasis on experiential learning and leadership development, I don't know that we'll be teaching these lessons to our current students, either--perhaps because they're best learned after graduation. With big thanks to Corey for providing this framework, here are three lessons you (probably) won't learn in b-school:
Business school definitely helped me learn to get things done more effectively. I tackled so many academic and extracurricular projects in such a short amount of time, working alongside classmates who were so sharp and productive, that I had to bring my "A" game every day, and my game inevitably improved. But although the experience left me far better prepared to get things done--to get to "point Z," in Corey's phrase--it didn't necessarily help me find "point A," the right place to get started.
At a macro level, this means that business school isn't a particularly good place to "find yourself" or to reflect on your life path. Business school is a great place to find a job in almost any field or to take your career in an entirely new direction, and I found that a wealth of resources at Stanford, from the Career Management Center to the Center for Social Innovation to an amazing network of alumni, were available to help me get from point B to point Z. But it was still up to me to pick the point A where I wanted to get started.
I'm not suggesting that before you enter business school you need to know exactly what you're going to do after graduation, but whenever I talk to prospective MBAs, I encourage them to spend a lot of time thinking in advance about why they want the degree and what they expect to do with it.
And at a micro level, this means that the pace and intensity of b-school (and the related skills that you develop) can result in rapid venture-creation, problem-solving or project management processes that propel you quickly down a path toward point Z before you're sure that you've started in the right place.
Rather than focusing immediately on answering the question, "How can we do this more effectively?," it may be more useful to engage in a little double-loop learning and ask "Is this the right thing to do in the first place?" and "What assumptions should be challenged before we proceed?" (A lesson I've had to re-learn on occasion.)
After graduating from the GSB I became the first Executive Director of the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) a new organization dedicated to helping the nonprofit sector make more effective use of technology. I led NTEN for four years--it was an incredible experience, and I'm really proud of what we accomplished--but at times I made things harder for myself because I didn't see how being surrounded by MBAs for two years had affected how I worked with others.
Although b-schools can be perceived as lacking in diversity, in my experience MBAs are actually an extremely diverse group, with the important caveat that only 35-40% of the students are women (in contrast to most other graduate programs, in which the majority of students are now women.) And gender balance aside, as a student I learned a great deal about working with people from different cultures, industries and personal backgrounds.
But ultimately all these people were MBAs, and although it's difficult to generalize about that group as a whole, I found that my classmates' competitiveness and drive served to enhance those qualities in myself, and, and while that allowed me to get a lot accomplished as a leader after graduation, it also had a downside.
When I encountered difficulties or ran into conflicts--inevitable when building a new organization that served a wide range of stakeholders--I often saw issues in zero-sum, win/lose terms--and I felt that my effectiveness as a leader was contingent on my ability to push forward and surmount opposition. I was good at driving projects toward completion, but in the process others could feel stifled or experience me as inflexible. I don't want to overstate the case--I believe I was ultimately an effective community-builder--but it would have been an easier process if I'd been more aware of this dynamic.
Corey has observed similar processes in his work at the d.school, where students from different graduate programs work in teams. The MBAs come in with strong group development and interpersonal skills that allow them to step into leadership roles, but they can sometimes overuse these strengths and be too influential, preventing others from feeling fully heard.
I do think that the GSB's new curriculum will help students be better prepared to cope with this dynamic, but you're still going to have to experience for yourself what it means to go from an all-MBA environment to one in which you may be the only person with that background and training. How will you differ from your new colleagues or clients? How will those differences help you achieve your goals? And how might those differences get in the way?
Getting my MBA was a valuable experience. I learned a lot, the degree's been a helpful line on the resume, and I've benefited greatly as a member of the GSB's alumni network (a debt I gladly repay at every opportunity). But unlike a JD or an MD, you don't need an MBA in to pursue any particular career path. They're important assets in many cases, but rarely actual prerequisites. (And sources from BusinessWeek to 20 CEOs and other experts believe MBAs are overrated. Hey, even MBA drop-outs can make it big.)
So even though MBAs tend to be competitive and driven, in my experience they also tend to be risk-averse. Going to b-school is a diversification strategy, a way to expand one's options--and a way to delay committing to any particular path. This combination of competition and risk-aversion creates an environment in which our typical reluctance to make mistakes is heightened out of all proportion to the actual costs of those mistakes. So MBAs tend to put a high value on "doing it right" and avoid failure like the Black Plague. This establishes a "floor" under our losses, but it also creates a "ceiling" over our accomplishments. Success is never certain in any meaningful endeavor, and the more risk you can tolerate, the more you can potentially accomplish.
A lot of the coaching work I do with students involves helping them increase their risk-tolerance in interpersonal situations. We experiment with greater candor and directness, we test our intuitions and hunches, and we explore how we might accomplish our goals more effectively. And at every stage, we fail. But each time we fail, there's something to be learned from the experience--and the most important lesson is how often we mistakenly inflate the costs of failure.
Corey also sees elements of this in his work at the d.school, where "Fail faster, succeed sooner"--attributed to IDEO's David Kelley--is a mantra of the rapid prototyping methodology that's integral to any contemporary design process. As David Bradford says, "Failure is inevitable, and what's important is how you handle it, not how you avoid it."
Thanks again to Corey Ford for his insights and his ability to distill two years of experience into a few minutes of thought-provoking conversation.